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Health and wellbeing in the ancient world
Health and wellbeing in the ancient world

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1.2 Weight issues in antiquity

Balance was an essential principle in maintaining health. The internal fluids of the body should be kept in balance, as an excess of any one of them could cause disease. This applied to other, non-physical, aspects of life as well. As developed by the philosopher Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, the need for balance (the ‘golden mean’) meant one should aim for the middle ground between deficiency and excess in moral, as well as physical, terms. For example, the virtue of courage was intermediate between cowardly and rash behaviour.

As applied to health, the ideal body weight was therefore one that was neither too high nor too low. This seems very reasonable to us, because it is still how Western biomedicine operates. Guidelines from the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) include detailed information on what is considered correct; for example, suggesting that, in general, a Body Mass Index (BMI) of less than 18.5 or more than 30 has many adverse effects. While the ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t quantify the relationship between height and weight in the way that BMI does, you will learn in Week 6 how by looking at ancient art you can gain some idea of the ideals in the ancient world.

Terracotta figurine of a standing woman with large breasts, belly and hips.
Figure 2 Terracotta figurine of an obese woman, Greek, circa 350–320 BCE

Despite the importance of athletics in the ancient Mediterranean cultures, the body of the athlete was not seen as the ideal. A Hippocratic treatise stated that ‘the athletic state is not natural: better the healthy condition’ (Nutriment, 34). Galen put it like this: ‘athletic development is not natural, the healthy condition is better (Protrepticus, 11). Athletes, he argued, shook their teeth so much that they would fall out early, and their joints were weakened by being twisted. He recommended exercise with a small ball as the healthiest form, free of risks. Needing no special equipment, it used many different muscles, exercised the whole of the body and did not strain any part of it. Catching the ball even exercised the eyesight. You saw this illustrated by the ‘bikini girls’ mosaic you studied in Week 1.

Running swiftly has already killed many, when they rupture an important blood vessel … vigorous horse riding has caused rupture of those structures in relation to kidneys, and has often harmed structures in the chest, and sometimes also the spermatic ducts.

(Galen, On exercise with a Small Ball, 5)

He added that those from the wrestling school can be seen to be ‘lame, twisted, crushed or with some part altogether maimed’. You will return to the effects of life on bodies in Week 6.

Regimen in Health

The Hippocratic treatise Regimen in Health advises that fat people wanting to become thin ‘should take only one full meal a day’ and thin people who want to become fat should eat more than once in the day (Hippocrates, Regimen in health). Eating immediately after exercise was considered least likely to make a person fat. Celsus wrote that:

It is not good indeed to overeat after a long fast, nor to fast after overeating. And he runs a risk who goes contrary to his habit and eats immoderately whether once or twice in the day.

(Celsus, On Medicine, 1.3.2)

Activity 1

In The Perseus Project, which you used in Week 1, you saw how the Perseus digital library can be used to find English translations of many ancient written sources. Visit the Perseus website [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] now and find the English translation of Celsus, On Medicine.

Using the search box halfway down the page (on the right-hand side), search for ‘fat’. You should have one search result, with the total number of hits in the top-right corner (23). Click on ‘More’ to see all the results. Clicking on one of them will take you to the page on which it appears, and the word you have searched for will be highlighted in blue.


As well as many references to fat as an element of the diet, or as a carrier for plant substances being applied externally to the body, you’ll discover a number of references to those who are neither too thin, nor too fat, as being fittest, and as being the people who heal most quickly. In terms of diet, you may also be surprised at the range of types of animal fat being consumed in the ancient Mediterranean!

The effects of being ‘too’ fat

What were the presumed effects of being ‘too’ fat? One was infertility, in both sexes. Abdominal fat was thought to put pressure on the womb so that it was unable to receive the man’s seed. Conversely, the diversion of food to make more body fat meant less food was available to produce menstrual blood which, as you will see in Week 5, was thought to be the raw material of a foetus. For this reason, unnaturally (para physin) fat women were also unlikely to be able to support a foetus to full term. As for men, those who were healthy but a little overweight were thought to produce less semen and be less interested in sexual activity, according to Aristotle in his treatise On the Generation of Animals.

Galen wrote a treatise entitled The Thinning Diet. This was not about weight loss, but a treatment for chronic ailments intended to avoid the need for drugs. Galen suggested that foods which were ‘sharp’, ‘biting’ or ‘hot’ to the taste could cut through thick humours in the body. The most ‘thinning’ foods of all were garlic, onions, cress, leeks and mustard. Fish from mountain rivers and birds from a high altitude were also ‘thinning’ in this medical sense, because they were thought to be ‘drier’ than those living nearer ground level.